Close the IT generation gap

Mary-Jane Jarvis-Haig is about to leave one of Canada’s largest enterprises after decades on the job, but she’s already contemplating her next career move.

“I think I’d like to be a business intelligence ‘special agent,’” says Jarvis-Haig, Hudson Bay Co.’s senior manager of business intelligence. “One of my real strengths is working with people and building good teams. I have this niche around BI, but it’s getting the most out of the technology and the people that I think I bring to an organization.”

She also brings longevity. Jarvis-Haig started with Hbc in 1976 as a programmer, and moved up the ranks over the past 30 years.

“The world was just beginning to look at databases at the time,” she says. “It had been an all-male team. I wasn’t particularly welcome, but the core of technology team left, because there was a lot of turnover in those years.”

Now there’s still turnover, but not as many new recruits coming in. As one generation of IT workers retires and another starts building up their resumes, managing the cultural differences between them may be difficult.

The Conference Board of Canada recently released a report on IT workforce development strategies, but according to co-author Barbara Fennessy, existing research has focused primarily on identifying the extent of the IT labour shortage. The next step, she said, is looking into why a shortage exists, and whether firms need to employ different tactics to retain workers.

Young hot-shots

For Jarvis-Haig, who saw Hbc go through a technology staff that peaked at 800 before various levels of downsizing, changes in management made it feel like she was working for several different companies. She just didn’t have to find another job, she says.

“Part of it is the person who I am. I wasn’t about quick stops on a ladder going someplace. Lots of people came through my teams who worked beside me who had a very specific career plan,” she says. “My approach seems to be if there’s an opportunity there, I’ll do it.” Jarvis-Haig says she has noticed some generational differences that require skilful handling.

“People don’t come out of school with the vision of, ‘Let me find a company I can take to greatness.’ That’s not what we teach them in school,” she says. “People come out expecting a great job. Why should they have to start at the bottom and work up?”

Old know-it-alls

Young workers aren’t the only ones with an attitude, though. Thomas Siry is a third-year Bachelor of Applied Information Systems student studying at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. After two years working in help desk roles, he decided to pursue a more fulfilling career as a network administrator or designer. He’s seen the generation gap work both ways.

“You come on as a greenhorn. They really don’t take your education for anything,” Siry says. “You walk in and these guys who have the Windows 95 for Dummies book up there, you know they haven’t been keeping up their skills.”

Siry is hoping to run his own IT department within the next seven years. As for incentives, given the high costs of living in major centres like Alberta, “It’s about pay, as shallow as that sounds.”

Jarvis-Haig agrees. “They’re going to have to pay more,” she says bluntly. The other trick, she says, is to catch them on what she calls the first round. “Anybody I hire, I say to them, ‘I’ll make a deal with you. When you become bored or tired, all I ask is that you come and tell me that you may be looking.’” That’s when she tries to find a new project.

“I don’t think it’s just about money,” adds Fennessy. “It’s about the kind of work people want to do. You also have to think about young people’s experience in terms of seeing parents going through the dot-com crash. There’s a residue of what happened several years back.”

Sociable solutions

Some IT veterans may not be able to ensure they have a replacement by the time they retire. That means companies will have to be creative about keeping them in the loop longer, Fennessy says.

“Some of the strategies that companies may look at would include flexible schedules for older workers,” she says, suggesting that such employees might take on a quasi consulting or advisory role even after they officially retire. “They may need to phase them our through a process to retain their knowledge.”

Another route may be social software. Kathryn Everest, senior managing consultant for social software at IBM Canada in Markham, Ont., says some older-generation employees may not like introducing a new task into their regular workflow, but she makes it sound almost like an electronic form of mentoring.

“I’m working with someone right now who is a very avid blogger,” she says. “While my schedule doesn’t permit me to blog, my colleague almost blogs for me. I go onto her blog and if I think she doesn’t make a particular point well enough I can respond to that.”

Other older workers have used social software to reduce the volume of phone calls they handle, Everest says. For example, they ask for questions to be posted onto a blog or wiki where they can be answered for the benefit of an entire group, like an FAQ of sorts.

This kind of approach could also help companies confront the different attitudes older generations have compared to their younger counterparts. Jarvis-Haig has seen this first-hand.

“The younger ones who are really keen on the technologies are just thinking about the technology,” she says. “I would have to say to them, how can Hbc benefit from that? What’s it going to do for us?”

What the IT generation gap may come down to is a mind shift that spans several industries. “I saw my career with my company. It happened to be in the technology field,” says Jarvis-Haig. “Some are picking technology and are looking for a place. They are trying to make a name for themselves and to learn a lot.”

That sounds a lot like Siry. “My first step is going to be finding a speciality company, one that knows what IT is,” he says, adding that the best way to address the gap might be owning up to the skills gap — and being ready to groom.

“When you see these job postings, usually they’re looking for really experienced people. After it’s been vacant for a number of months, it would be great if they would revise it say they are actually willing to train, willing to take in new IT people. It would put a lot more of a friendly spin on things.”

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